Monday, September 26, 2011


Listening to the authors at the Plum Creek festival Gala (thank you Laurie for the invitation) I was struck by the importance of mentorship mostly informal for the development of "talent". The great illustrator Pinkney told the story of how an established artist took interest in him as he was drawing while selling newspapers and invited him to his studio. The two other speakers that spoke at length also discussed individuals who took interest in them and helped guide their development. As I listened I wondered, do motivated "talented" individuals attract such attention and feed on it or is it a phenomenon that can be expanded and if so. Are we giving students the opportunities to forge such relationships that will lead them to new ideas new images of future selves?

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Excellence- Or it's ok to work with talented motivated students too!

The credit to this post goes to Jim Lewis a professor of Math and long time math educator. In a conversation yesterday he said (my memory so the responsibility here is mine) excellent educators I work with are reluctant to focus on working with high achieving students, it only counts when you help struggling students. The question is whether our focus on clsing the gap s leading us to neglect our most talented students. We sometimes assume that those are also motivated and understand their own strengths. Do we have art classes for advanced students, those who may with some support become adults who are first and foremost artists: dancers, musicians, authors, actors, painters etc.

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Friday, September 16, 2011

The Question

A colleague challenged me today. How do you know hat student learning is increased using technology. The context is our discussion about mandating technology in our pre-service teacher ed program. It is a common question that in my struggle to answer at that moment had a hard time calrifying.
Like art technology is NOT just a handmaiden to other learning. Technology at this point is to me like the arts, it is part of the fabric of our lives, not an add on. We cannot afford to teach kids in schools without art and without technology. The world is looking to us as an example of nurturing creativity while we move away from it under the guise of BACK TO BASICS. The problem is we are asking the wrong questions- the goal is not just to improve old ways of knowing- include new ones.
Written during a faculty meeting, the ultimate proof that they are not totally useless...

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A World without Textbooks- Lessons from the Art-room

I have been contemplating the idea of no textbooks for a while. Part of it stems from the onslaught of new editions in higher education. At this point major textbooks are reissued on an annual basis- changed so you cannot easily integrate the previous edition easily. I do not blame the publishers, it is their business and they are trying to stay ahead.
The issue in K-12 is a little different since schools purchase the books directly- again a lucrative market to capture.
When you walk into an art-room the teacher does not use a textbook. Instead she uses the materials of art itself. Side note: Schools often complain about the cost in art supplies but never balance it out with not buying textbooks. What the art teacher has figured out is that in some cases it is better to do the learning than to read all about it. At that point of course we must recognize that not ALL school topics can be covered that way. Still I would argue that much of science, math, art, music, can be done without a textbook. I am not saying that we can teach science only hands-on from experience, instead I argue that we can combine with other non-textbook resources to the same or even better effect.
In many of the other topics digital resources or authentic resources can be found. For example: we can teach much about the civil war from a Ken Burns episode, and museum resources available online.
In higher ed textbooks are a great way to reduce the load on the teacher- the sequence is there the main points, the PowerPoint presentations and quizzes. It is the first step in "teacher proofing" your curriculum.
For me in teacher education I find that whenever I use a textbook I am patently unhappy about it, since it is someone elses idea of what should be taught at what sequence and with what emphases. I find myself spending quite some time ignoring the text re-emphasizing points that are lost or correct what I consider mistakes. In short, even the best textbooks I find are "not just right". This summer I taught a few classes all of which avoided using the classic "textbook" instead I used professional materials- practical books for teachers that are resources for a professional while the pedagogic role of explaining theory, history, and big themes was left for me as an instructor. To that I added many Internet resources that are plentiful in the literacy field, video, podcasts, articles and voila: Textbook free courses.
I just want to close with the idea that I would like to teach without textbooks but NOT without reading or preparing for class. Textbooks are necessary sometimes in one format or another but their application has to be thoughtful. In k-12 schools using less textbooks would lead to great savings that can be turned around to professional development or much needed technology.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Making a difference

This week I visited the Avenue Scholars Foundation in Omaha. Jef Johnston their chief operating officer said something that resonated with me. Referring to recruiting diverse teachers he said (I am paraphrasing here): this problem is solvable, if it has not been solved yet it is because they don't really want to.
I found this approach to be very much inline with my feelings about many of the problems I encounter in teacher education.
At the heart of it it is a design problem- not the external shiny stuff but design in the full sense of the word- the way someone like Steve Jobs would use it:

In most people's vocabularies, design means veneer. It's interior decorating. It's the fabric of the curtains of the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.

Steve Jobs

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Visual Art and Reading Comprehension

In last weeks post I described a student who improved his writing using visual art representations and learning about the writing process through the drawing process. This time I'd like to describe the use of visual art as a reading comprehension scaffold. 
J.N. is a student who had a really hard time comprehending texts that were two grade levels below her biological age. Her decoding and fluency were adequate but when she tried to retell a story or answer comprehension question it was clear that she was not able to locate main idea. In fact in text retell she would often mention details sporadically with no connection or clear understanding of what the text was about. After a conversation with me J.N.'s tutor decided to use drawing after reading as a comprehension strategy.
After each chapter in the book J.N. was asked to choose a scene from the chapter. Here, the direction were aimed at creating a thought process that would lead J.N. to choose the key scene - the main idea. The tutor used modeling and scaffolded self-talk to promote this kind of thinking. Next J.N. was asked to draw the scene in as great a detail as possible. As she draw she explained her choices to her tutor and how they made sense based on her interpretation of the story. Finally J.N. wrote a summary based on her drawing. 

Within a few week J.N. acquired a deep understanding of locating main idea and supporting detail using the scaffold and metaphor of visual art decision making process. This strategy was extremely useful and J.N. ended up raising her comprehension level to grade level expectations by the end of the five week session. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Visual Art with Struggling Readers and Writers

This summer I spent nine weeks in our reading center working with pre-service teachers who tutor struggling readers and writers. I love the work but what struck me was how effective visual art supports were.
One student A.S. was a student headed for second grade but having significant delays in achievement and some challenging behaviors to boot. The most challenge was getting A.S. To write. We were lucky to get more than a short sentence. I then suggested starting with a drawing. Now A.S. was more easily engaged, persisted, produced a picture, contributed significant oral language about the picture but still wrote very little. Finally we decided to insist on details during the art creation. In addition we modeled a questioning technique that exposed A.S. to ways of generating text. This time his writing filled a page and was full of detail and interest.
I truly belive that for young writers this link is foundamental and will help all writers do well- as we have seen in our work in Arts LINC.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Composition- Teaching Creativity and Problem Solving

A few weekends ago Kurt and I found ourselves in a Uhaul truck moving furniture. Kurt as is his habit levels a multi-layered question in a matter of fact way. This is in no way a direct quote but the essence of the question was How do you teach and evaluate [musical] composition at the graduate level? What I love about Kurt is that he asks this just as if he was asking "Should we make a right here?" That is while the question is complex it is also very concrete in his mind (and mine I think).
Anyway this post are some of my thoughts about the topic that applies directly to creativity in other domains and has clear parallels in the writing process and in visual arts. I borrow here from Ken Robinson and define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value. In the context of education as a process I think that most often creativity is about finding novel solutions to meaningful problems. The problems themselves can be defined by an educator or the learner. When teaching composition, writing or visual arts this definition holds, and one can see how we can ask students to create in a familiar style or form (say painting a still life picture or writing a Haiku) making it uniquely our own by identifying the problem and providing a solution to it. In a sense teaching writing is very much just that. Lucy Calkins coined the phrase "Teach the writer not the writing" (I am actually borrowing it from Evi who is one of the best teachers of writing I know) which I take to mean there is no one uniform way to go through a program, instead as educators we must allow room for learners to define their own problems and find solutions to them. In a way teaching creativity is about teaching our students to identify problems, learn how others solved similar ones and then coming up with their own solution.
This is exactly the reason that I believe there is no universal creativity factor but instead expertise leading to creativity in a specific domain. The process in broad strokes has parallels but the details are often too different. For example I have no capacity to identify problems  in [music] composition , but I am extremely capable of doing that in educational research (it is a strange field to be creative in I know).
The area that has the most to offer I think for educators interested  in developing the ability to compose is Teaching Writing. You must decipher the parallels of course and the elements that are uniquely linked to writing but I still believe that it is useful.
A place to start might be:
The work of Lucy CalkinsLinda Flower, and unl's own Robert Brooke.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Twenty First Century Learning

We are here at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century and yet the "we" of education and teacher  education has not arrived. I retweeted some interesting comments recently (@tgite) about this phenomena so I will not go back into it. Instead I choose to imagine here what a Masters level program around 21st century learning might look like.
The drive is to provide an interesting, relevant, flexible "just structured enough" experience. It makes me giddy with anticipation!
1. Creativity- a class on current view on creativity that will include the work of Pink, RobinosonCsíkszentmihályi, Gardener, Eisner. (this one is all mine)
2. Problem Based Learning
3. Teaching and Learning in Digital Environments (currently taught by my colleague, friend, and web based education pioneer D. Brooks)
4. Action Research Methods for the Digital Classroom
5. Arts Integration in K-16 environments (a class we have been teaching at UNL for the past 5 years or so)
6. Teaching as an aesthetic text (a fantastic class by M. Latta)
7. Assessment in rich environments

As I was looking for images it occurred that we are once again turning to the Renaissance Man: Leonardo Da Vinci as an ideal, part scholar, part scientist, part engineer and part artist. 

Welcoming any comments, this may very well turn into a reality soon!

Sunday, July 31, 2011


This week I had the opportunity to consult informally with a local educational leader (I would use names, but I did not ask for permission so ... maybe another time). The Discussion focused on ways to implement and measure professional development in social studies education with an emphasis on American History in elementary schools. While it has been a while since I taught history (15 yrs to be exact) the knowledge I brought to the table was actually related to the work we've done in Arts LINC. Interestingly Nancy A., my long time collaborator in Arts LINC, is now a project director in a Teaching American History Grant.
The parallels between the two domains are uncanny. In the past decade, social studies in the elementary schools have been declining, despite the fact that it was one of No Child Left Behind "Core Subjects". The bottom line was that social studies were not tested at the elementary level and thus less and less attention, time and resources were directed at them over time. Social studies curriculum leaders find themselves needing to convince others that social studies matter for all students and that understanding of history can have added benefits to other domains through integration and 21st-century learning. In short they present an argument not much different than the one we presented over a decade ago in arts integration. Luckily, I could bring to the discussion our lessons of making integration work. So here they are:

1. Partner with teachers as co-researchers.
2. Allow for leadership opportunities and encourage initiative
3. Measure teacher implementation and student achievement and provide short feedback cycles of results
4. Integrate into existing curriculum (do not add instructional units), let teachers decide where and how much
5. Set clear yet flexible criteria for quality that will become your fidelity checks
6. Develop teacher's knowledge base/ model lessons
7. Visit teachers to teach and learn

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hedonic Adaptation and the State of the Arts

In his recent book Dan Ariely discussed Hedonic Adaptation, the ability of our mind to adjust to new baseline conditions. An example of short term adaptation is a smell that initially overwhelms us but after some time becomes tolerable and eventually recedes into the background. ariely claims that the Hedonic adaptation to larger changes is about 6 months (e.g. for a new car to not feel to us new anymore). I would like to stretch the concept to the idea of societal hedonic adaptation- when our expectations as a society and culture shift and a new baseline is created. A good example that jumps into my mind is the phenomena that has always fascinated me, the semblance of "normal" life in the height of the ghetto period during the holocaust. The idea that even under horrific conditions Jewish society maintained a new normal with social events, music, art, organization and celebration of life cycle events. Against all claims that our evil nature emerges when the thin veneer of civilazation is scraped by circumstance. That ability of society to adapt through the individual ability of hedonic adaptationcan be a blessing and a curse.
When I think about education I fear the same Heonic adaptation. We get used to excessive pointlessy invalid unreliable testing (see Berliner's post on that recently). So what oes that have to do with a blog about arts integration? As I was reading Ariely's book it occured to me that we have generation growing up with very little to no art in school, heck in the elementary years there is in some places just math and literacy. The same is true for large, complex, and integrated unit of studies. If this becomes he new standard, as past students become parents that will not demand arts education and arts integration for their kids because it has never existed for them then we will be in perpetual trouble. Kaiser pointed that out in his national tour two years ago as well.
Since I do not want to be glum I would like to point to an alternative. It may be that we need the arts in a way that resists hedonic adaptation. Ariely points out that we cannot adapt in this way to eveything. It cold be that he arts are so foundamental to us as humans that we will know them even in their absence and ask for them, just like the fact that music and art lived on in the bleak ghettos. Kurt Knecht suggested in a recent blog that we finally move away from the notion hat to create art one has to suffer, I suggest that we go one step further and claim that art does need us, instead we need art. It may very well be hat it is such a deep need that it defies conditions and we cannot exist for long without it.
This may also explain how after decades of neglect teachers are still seeking opportunities to integrate the arts into their classrooms embracing the complexity of self expression.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

And What about Architecture?

Yesterday I happened to go to the Joslyn in Omaha. I was struck by the collection and the superb way it was displayed but more than anything I was struck by the architecture. I admit to having a soft spot for architecture and everyday design, but I have not payed enough attention to the potential in education. Architecture is inherently interdisciplinary part engineering, part technology, part art, part social science. It is all around us, yet we do not spend much time teaching or learning it...
In early education the urge to build is always evident. Young children often build in blocks, Lego and assortments of other toys. As they get older these urges to build and create seem to be channeled to the world of play, while school becomes the serious place of thinking and being academic using our heads but not our hands, solving all problems in the abstract giving up on the trial and error process. Yes I am channeling a bit of Sir Ken Robinson here. While I do not think he is right about everything we definitely can find common ground here!

So my thought for the day is that with some thought we can integrate design process and architecture into our curricula- enhancing them while opening new avenues of creativity and thought for our students and for ourselves!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Engagement in Teaching

It is a rainy morning punctuating a beautiful but extremely busy week. In a short conversation with Monique who is doing some thinking and writing about what is left from arts integration projects after the project is over.
Our conversation turned to thinking about different responses by different teachers and the conditions under which these responses emerge.

One factor that we did not explicitly discuss was teacher engagement. For me we, as teachers, are not fully accepting a practice until we let that practice "fill" us. That is we enact it with students fully embracing and participating in the practice. This is even more important when integrating the arts, since the arts are meant to be displayed, shared, and audienced (not sure this is a word...).

If we stay reserved while playing a song, drawing, dancing, making a movie- our students will feel our reservation and will limit their own participation, viewing full engagement as "childish". Maybe the term I am looking for is JOY (parallels the notion of ">FLOW). If you find joy in integrating the arts and your students can feel your joy, they will buy into it, fully particpate, and learn what it means to really enjoy what you do.

Now I do not mean that finding JOY in a practice shold stop you in any way from being critical after the fact, evaluating what worked and what didn't and improving a practice. This JOY/FLOW is ot always there because to reach it we must have expertise, practice and confidence. But when we reach it the results and the JOY can fill us with a strong sense of efficacy and empowerment.

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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Art Education and the Elites

It is an untypically pessimistic post for me...

The drive to make sure that students are on grade level in Reading and Math has hurt many of the other subjects. It is simply the arithmetic of time in school, so we're told. All the surveys show that the public wants creative and even artistic students but whenever faced with the false dichotomy of either reading and math OR art, people admit that they think reading and math are more important to them.

Of course this impacts some students more than others. Uper middle class professional parents will support extra curricular programs in their schools and will also fill the gap themselves. At the same time a self reinforcing pattern of alienation from the arts will occur through the rest of society. Depending on what outcome you care about we will have less creative adults (when we need thm most), we will ave less patrons of the art, and finally and mot importantly art will once again be part of class distinction.

If only a small and well off segment of socuety gets true exposure to the arts then the arts themselves become part of class. When people discuss class they talk about class warfare. I do not agree I see instead a slow eroding change that willl not be understood until it is irreversible.

This call is not only for educators and thepublic but also to art organizations- make sure you engage your future audiences and include education in your goals.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Looking Forward

At a retirement party yesterday I chatted with Margaret Latta, a great colleague, about the future of art education at UNL. Yes, despite the budget cuts we think there is a future. In a previous post I have hinted at that option but yesterday we went one step further.
We are looking to situate arts education as part of an MEd program that focuses on 21st Century learning. Pre and in serrvice

teachers will participate in core courses on creativity, arts integration, technology and media in education. The idea is to transcend the traditional disciplinary boundaries in education to create a more coherent
vision and practice of education.
I am not sure if we can pull it off and get a critical mass of faculty to become interested. To make it work we need enough involvement to ensure sustainability and enough focus to ensure a cohesive program. I think that doctoral students might be a great part of a structure like this...
Part of the challenge will be to reboot some of our existing courses so that they fit our vision of integration as we practice what we preach!

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Friday, June 3, 2011

What do I mean by entrepreneurship?

In a comment on a previous post Kurt (whose blog is worth visiting) asked what I meant by entrepreneurship. Like all good questions it made me think a little more deeply on the issue- which is the main reason for the existence of this blog in the first place.
For me that word extends to any self initiated activity that interacts with the community in a positive way. It could be economic (and showing the economic importance of the arts is part of it), but it could also be a part of applying an entrepreneurial approach to community involvement, community action or giving.
The idea is that the arts can help students be more aware of their community and connect to it. See themselves as relevant players in building a community. I believe that shared art that crosses personal boundaries shared in new ways can become a vehicle to contain the alienation that kids and adults often feel in their everyday life.
One can argue that our modern school system is a product of the industrial revolution and the structure of the disciplinary approach to school (most obviously in high school) is akin to an assembly line in which each teacher has a specific and narrow task. His output can be measured easily most recently in value-added model suggested by economists (see Kurt's take on this issue here).
What I am arguing is that education and most easily elementary education can strive to create an alternative approach which connects the learner to the community and reduces the alienation not just for the learner but also for the community at large. Art can be such an instruments if we allow and support our students in becoming social and economic entrepreneurs.
Theoretically I am aiming at a sense of agency- a sense that schools (and society) strip away from children instead of finding meaningful ways to foster it.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

What if we combined arts, technology and entrepeneurship?

In a series of conversation about the arts in the last few years I have heard repeatedly the argument that the arts help sustain communities from an economic standpoint.  To be honest I have paid little attention to it. Not because I think they are wrong but instead because my main concern is not the business of the arts, it is maintaining the place of the arts in education.

In the last few weeks one of our graduate students Laurie has been conducting interviews and observations with teachers who integrate technology in their instruction. Quite a few of the teachers were art teachers that integrate technology into much of their work, some were technology teachers using art (visual, video and music).

At the same time schools are being "squeezed" and respond by limiting art and technology. What would happen if we combined arts, technology, and entrepreneurship in meaningful ways? What might that look like at the school and community level? I think there is great potential here that would help students see connection become active learners and strengthen communities. There is one risk- doing this might make school learning relevant and meaningful, not much irony actually, if some areas are highly motivating other areas that are less immediately relevant (say physics) may actually decline even further. Much to think about would love some comments.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Budget Cuts and the Arts

This time I would like to talk about the recent budget cuts at UNL. While this may be not be directly about arts integration I still believe it has direct impact on my main topic. In the recent round of budget cuts a decision was made to cut K-12 arts education. What does it mean? It means that we will cease to prepare arts educators at the undergraduate level within the next few years.

I am sorry to see any program go, and even sorrier to see my good colleague Dr. Jean Detlefsen go, but in times of budget difficulty choices have to be made. The pattern, however, is familiar to K-12 environments- the arts goes out early with PE and other "nice but not necessary" subjects. I argue here as I did before the Academic Planning Committee, that the loss will impact our program beyond that of arts education. The disappearance of the program will lead to fewer graduate students in arts education decreasing our ability to teach art methods to all elementary teachers. In addition, this group of future arts educators interacted directly with future elementary teachers in our arts teaching methods course. But all of that will cease in less than two years.

So what now? As I am more prone to action than dwelling on things I cannot change I started working with colleagues on a new M.Ed. program that will focus on 21st century learning- marrying my care for elementary education and my interests in creativity arts integration and educational technology and media.

In some ways I am very excited about this new idea whose time has come...
Hopefully this idea can support the ongoing creation of diverse art teachers that would be able to combine art media and technology for the benefit of all students.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Art can be a little bit of magic in the classroom

Evie who is my co-teacher in Elementary methods. She just said that during our class. Maybe just maybe we're raising a new generation.
Technology in its wider space drives this generation to be more creative, more open, more visual and maybe above all more performance oriented with a strong sense of audience.
Today, I am hopeful.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The four Minute Post

I recently went back listened and read Ken Robinson's work.
I think that education at all levels should develop an agenda with art organizations if we are ever to move this thing. As a parent and a member of the "non artist" masses, I often do not get to have art be part of my daily life. If art is not part of daily life parent and the public will be highly unlikely to keep art as a top priority for school either. If I who aware and really cares about this topic often cannot get to it. How can others?

Art is important we need to make it accessible and a conscious part of everyday life.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Art and Technology

I read recently a blog post contrasting art and technology. The theme was: technology is to the brain what art is to the soul.
As my seven year old says: "Really?!?"

 Art and technology have more in common than apart. They both relate to the brain, through creative processes. Finding novel solution to meaningful problems. If games and social media taught us anything it is the centrality of the emotional experience to technology.

A second note is about "right brain" the research presented on TED on brain activity and creativity shows very clearly that "right" brain "left" brain ideas are highly irrelevant to the complex way we use our brains.

That's it for now,
Oh and Happy New Chinese year